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Study: Ocean algae can evolve fast to adjust to climate change

OSLO — Tiny marine algae can evolve fast enough to cope with climate change, a sign that some ocean life may be more resilient than thought to rising temperatures and acidification, a study showed.

Evolution is usually omitted in scientific projections of how global warming will affect the planet in coming decades because genetic changes happen too slowly to help larger creatures.

The findings, released on Sunday, showed that a type of microscopic algae that can produce 500 generations a year — or more than one a day — can still thrive when exposed to warmer temperatures and levels of ocean acidification predicted for the mid-2100s.

The Emiliania huxleyi phytoplankton studied are a main source of food for fish and other ocean life. The algae absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, as they grow. Their huge blooms can sometimes be seen from space.

“Evolutionary processes need to be considered when predicting the effects of a warming and acidifying ocean on phytoplankton,” according to the German-led study in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Thorsten Reusch, an author of the study at the GEOMAR Helmholtz-Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, cautioned the findings were only for one species of algae in a laboratory test, in water with no predators or disease.

He said it was not an argument that global warming was less serious than expected. Longer-lived creatures, from fish to shellfish, would not be able to evolve their way out of trouble.

A U.N. panel of scientists says that man-made greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere are warming the planet and carbon dioxide, the main gas, turns into a weak acid when it dissolves in water, slowly acidifying the oceans.


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